Extra post: Snyder v. Phelps

This post isn't so much about how amusing an article as it is to discuss the importance of a current Supreme Court Case, one which I have some strong opinions about.

The case in question is Snyder v. Phelps. The basis of the case revolves around the conflict of the freedom of speech and right to privacy.

On March 3, 2006, LCpl Matt Snyder was killed in the line of duty in Iraq. His father Albert received his body and planned the funeral for the 10th. Upon seeing the obituary published, members of the Westboro Baptist Church saw it as an opportunity to get some media attention for their anti-homosexual agenda, and duly picketed the funeral with offensive messages. They also published an "epic" that directly defamed the Snyder family with personal attacks/slurs and mixed religious/political rhetoric. Mr. Snyder filed a suit the next year for defamation, intrusion upon seclusion, publicity given to private life, intentional infliction of emotional distress and civil conspiracy. His emotional injuries manifested themselves physically (such as the stress and aggravation of his diabetes), as well as his struggle against a public spotlight he never sought. The defense argued that since they had obeyed all local laws with the protest, and the speech was protected by the First Amendment, they were not liable.
The District Court jury found for the plaintiff on October 31, 2007, and awarded $3 million in damages and an additional eight million in punitive damages due to the intrusion of privacy and emotional distress. The next February, the judge reduced the damages, and a total of $5 million was assessed against the WBC.
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals heard and reversed that verdict in September 2009, judging a more categorical approach to classifying protected speech. To add insult to injury, the court later ordered Snyder to pay the thousands of dollars worth of court costs (which I'm told is common, but I'm a bit skeptical).
In October 2010, the Supreme Court heard arguments about the case. A decision is expected this spring.

The facts of the case are largely undisputed. It's the nature of the conflict of interests in this case that makes it important in the exercise of tort law. Perhaps the best way to explain this is to read Snyder v. Phelps, the Supreme Court's Speech-Tort Jurisprudence, and Normative Considerations by Deana Pollard Sacks. She brilliantly analyzes the oral arguments and precedents in speech-related tort cases. Essentially, she finds that the Supreme Court usually rejects an unbalanced view of protected speech (like the one the 4th Circuit had), judging the competing interests against each other and the needs of the state in protecting the legal system and the public's faith in tort cases. To affirm the WBC's speech as protected opens to door to allowing hate and bullying speech from any private individual to another without check, which would cause individuals to be reluctant to exercise their own rights to free speech in order to prevent such attacks. She also places emphasis on the fact that Mr. Snyder is a private individual, and his rights to privacy (in this case, the mourning of his son) and family reputation are not preempted by the WBC's rights to free speech. Since his injuries extend beyond mere hurt feelings and indignity, there is precedent for the damages awarded, especially if the Court places burdens of proof on him to protect the speech that was not spuriously and aggressively defaming.

Now, I think most everyone with more than two brain cells to rub together find the WBC and its message repulsive (heck, even a ditsy supermodel like Tyra Banks nearly lost her temper with them, and she's usually cool as ice on her talk show). If I were to be as blunt as Bill O'Reilly, I would call them a horrible menace of hate, especially for their attention-seeking antics at funerals (which I could never forgive, or understand). But the heart of this case is about the rights of individual, speech versus privacy. As much as the Marine part of me would like to not only find for Mr. Snyder and sentence the Phelps to public flogging, I have to agree that they do have a certain right to spew their hate. However, the methods they have chosen are wholly wrong, and they crossed a line by seeking out and intentionally harming Mr. Snyder, who wanted no part of them or their message. In fact, I think the court will recognize that their speech is not so protected because they would not have been able to cause harm with it if they had kept it in an appropriate forum (i.e. nobody would have given a damn about what they had to say if they weren't doing these offensive things to get attention). Whether or not they had a genuine point about America's foreign policy or societal values is irrelevant in the face of how they popularized it.

So to the court, I hope they consider along the lines of Professor Sacks. They need to overturn the 4th Circuit's reversal, and show America that the rights of an individual cannot be upheld at the expense of the rights of another's.

EDIT: On March 2nd, the Supreme Court came back 8-1 in favor of upholding the 4th Circuit's decision (news). To say that I'm disappointed is an understatement.

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